Australia’s demand driven system of higher education, introduced following the 2008 Review of Australian Higher Education (the Bradley Review), is providing more opportunities than ever before for Australians to access higher education. Competition among providers is increasing and choice for students is widening. The workforce is becoming better educated.
The higher education providers at the heart of this transformation are autonomous institutions. They determine the mechanisms and criteria through which applicants are accepted to study the courses they offer. Since the introduction of the demand driven system, the diversity of application and admission pathways has significantly widened. This, in line with government policy, is increasing the proportion of Australians able to attain graduate qualifications, and is enhancing the skill and educational levels of our workforce. Unfortunately, there is a problem. Prospective students need to make informed decisions. The new admission processes and entry requirements are poorly understood.
Higher education providers determine the Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) thresholds, where applicable, for recent secondary students. They also establish eligibility for alternative entry pathways for applicants who are not admitted on the basis of ATAR. Many providers now take into account tertiary education preparation courses, vocational education and training (VET), special tertiary admissions tests (including mature age entry), professional or paraprofessional qualifications, employment history or community experience. A range of other criteria may also help prepare a student to undertake higher education. Some students are accepted on the basis of school recommendations, performance at interview, or portfolios of creative work.
The increasing diversity of higher education admissions criteria is inadequately comprehended. Media debate tends to focus on ATAR ranks. Yet, in 2014, more than half of the students admitted to higher education courses were accepted on the basis of previous vocational or higher education study, mature age entry special provisions and the like. Figure 1 indicates that only 44 per cent of students were admitted on the basis of their secondary education – and of these, only 70 per cent were selected on the basis of their ATAR.
Today there are many ways to gain entry to higher education. ... Diversity is good. Varied entry standards and pathways are giving greater numbers of students the opportunity to benefit from higher education than ever before. More students from disadvantaged families, who in previous times would not have been able to gain entry to higher education, are now able to do so. However, choice is being undermined by information about the system’s operation that is confusing, ambiguous, misunderstood and unevenly distributed.
• There is no common language adopted across the sector to describe entry requirements. For example, the use of terms such as ‘ATAR’, ‘ATAR plus’, ‘selection rank’, ‘course cut-off’, ‘clearly in’ are often used in different ways by different providers. It is not always clear when a cut-off is truly a minimum entry rank, when an ATAR figure includes bonus points, or how providers apply bonus points.
• Although ATAR ranks are considered equivalent and transferrable between all states and territories, the ATAR calculation itself is different in each jurisdiction, driven by different approaches to assessment in their secondary education systems.
• There is a large amount of information about higher education admissions requirements available at the provider, tertiary admission centre (TAC) and government levels, but this is not always readily accessible. Information is not presented in a manner which allows prospective students to compare all providers and make informed decisions.
• The focus on ATAR as a basis of entry into higher education can be misleading as it only accounts for a little over 30 per cent of all new higher education enrolments. As a consequence, many prospective students assume they will only be admitted if they achieve a certain ATAR, when this might not be the case.
• There is a danger that some higher education providers might make exaggerated claims regarding ATAR requirements, in an attempt to boost perceived prestige. Currently many providers and TACs publish main round offer cut-offs only, even when students are admitted in later rounds with lower ranks.
A paradoxical situation has arisen. Entry into universities has become more equitable. Yet there is evidence that families with less experience of higher education, which are economically disadvantaged or live in regional Australia, are less able to understand how admissions processes operate. This is particularly the case where dedicated school-based career advisers are not available to lend support.
With these issues in mind, the Minister for Education and Training, Senator the Hon Simon Birmingham asked the Higher Education Standards Panel to consider whether the transparency of domestic higher education student admissions could be improved. The terms of reference asked the Panel to recommend options to improve the transparency of admissions processes, while minimising any increase in regulatory burden for providers. The Panel released a consultation paper on 6 April 2016. The Panel asked respondents to provide advice on how to improve the information available and the understanding of prospective students and their families about: • the requirements for admissions to higher education • the full range of ways in which applications can be made and are assessed by providers • the supports available to help students complete their courses and qualifications.
The Panel received 82 submissions from higher education providers, higher educational peak bodies, TACs and interested individuals. During the consultation process, the Panel and staff from the Panel’s secretariat also met face to face with a wide range of stakeholders. Details are set out in Appendix G. These discussions significantly influenced the Panel’s conclusions. It also proved very helpful to talk through the Panel’s draft proposals with Universities Australia.
Of course, responsibility for the 14 recommendations presented rests with the Panel alone. We believe that, if implemented, they will create greater consistency in the information available to prospective domestic students, reduce the complexity of accessing available higher education admission pathways and present information in a way that is more readily comparable. None of the recommendations interfere with the autonomy of higher education providers to decide their own entry requirements. Nor would the proposals impose an unnecessary burden of regulatory compliance on providers.
Principles and purpose
The first recommendation sets out the Panel’s view of principles that should be adopted to facilitate transparency of higher education admissions policies. The Panel believes it is important to recognise the primacy of students’ interests while acknowledging that higher education providers are autonomous and should take responsibility for their own admissions policies. However, with autonomy comes accountability. Higher education providers are required to ensure their admissions policies fully meet the Higher Education Standards on transparency.
The second recommendation outlines the problems that need to be addressed and indicates what the Panel intends to achieve through its proposals. Beyond the benefits that will assist prospective students and higher education providers, the Panel believes that a more transparent and easy-to-understand admissions process will help restore public confidence in the basis on which universities and colleges accept entrants.The Panel's recommendations are -
The following six principles should be adopted to facilitate transparency of higher education admissions policies: • A student-centred approach is critical to the provision of information about admissions. • Higher education providers exercise autonomy over their admissions policies, consistent with the requirements set out in the Higher Education Standards Framework. • Access to clear information relating to admissions requirements and various entry pathways are to be made available to all applicants equally. • Any new arrangements are to be applied equally to all higher education providers, universities and non-university higher education providers alike. • Higher education providers are to be held accountable for public claims against their stated admission policies. • Reforms to improve the transparency of higher education admissions policies and to ensure compliance are designed to minimise regulatory red-tape.
The purpose of standardising the manner in which higher education providers present their admissions processes should be to: • Make information on admissions policies available in a comparable format so that individuals can make better informed choices about providers and courses of study. • Clarify the requirements of the revised Higher Education Standards Framework with respect to transparency of admissions policies, and ensure that higher education providers know what they must do to meet fully those requirements. • Reduce uncertainty among students and their teachers about what is required in order to be admitted to higher education, especially where admission is on the basis of the ATAR achieved. • Give each higher education provider the capacity to promote a strong sense of its educational ethos and how admissions policies seek to contribute to that mission. • Ensure higher education providers can be held accountable for the information they publish on their admissions policies.
The following three recommendations are intended to achieve transparency through the use of common and clear language about admissions processes and to ensure the publication of consistent information.
Presently, there is a lack of uniformity across the sector with respect to policies and processes around admissions requirements. Higher education providers and TACs employ terms in different ways. For the purposes of this report a Glossary of the Panel’s understanding of these terms is provided. It is clear that specific guidance and common terminology need to be developed to help prospective students and their parents interpret and compare the various admissions criteria by provider and area of study, and make informed decisions relating to higher education admissions.
Different providers employ the various entry pathways to a greater or lesser extent, reflecting the communities that they serve and the students they seek to attract. Some providers enrol more than half of their students through the ATAR pathway while for others the proportion is less than 10 per cent. These differences between providers (and between courses within providers) can lead to confusion for students. More clarity is needed on the diversity of entry requirements. Where admission is determined in whole or part by reference to an individual’s ATAR, it is critical for each individual to have access to clear information about the minimum ATAR admission requirements for the course. Prospective students need to be able to assess whether they can meet those requirements and, if not, what other pathways might exist.
Applicants also need to understand whether they can access bonus points for various equity, academic or other characteristics, and on what basis. They need to know whether there is a maximum number of bonus points that can be accumulated or if a minimum ATAR is required for admission. Information about the minimum ATAR requirements or indicative ATAR cut-offs should be presented inclusive of any bonus points available, together with clear information on how bonus point arrangements operate. By way of example, if the minimum ATAR admission requirement for a particular course is 75 (inclusive of bonus points), and the maximum bonus points available for the course is 10, then: • a student who is unlikely to have access to bonus points knows that he or she must aim to achieve an ATAR of 75 or higher; and • a student who is likely to receive the maximum 10 bonus points knows he or she must aim to achieve an ATAR of 65 or higher. In this way, all individuals will have equal access to clear information about what ATAR they must achieve to ensure they meet the minimum ATAR admission requirements.
Increasingly, universities are making offers outside the main round of admissions. Unfortunately, ‘early’ and ‘late’ offers that take place outside the main round are often not included in the published information on ATARs. This reduces the transparency of admissions. To help ensure clarity, reported ATAR outcomes should be those that prevail at the conclusion of all offer rounds.
In addition, providers often publish details about a variety of bonus point schemes in different locations. For instance, information on equity points is often published in one place, and subject bonus information in another. Moreover, so-called bonus point ‘calculators’ may include some types of bonus points, but not others. Standardisation is necessary. Information should be provided at a single location. The Panel strongly recommends the adoption of consistent templates for admissions information, both by institution and by course or study area. These would make accessible a wide range of comparable information on the admission pathways available to prospective students. Such templates would make decision-making easier. At the moment there is uncertainty for many prospective students.
At the same time, prospective students need to understand where opportunities exist to gain access to higher education on the basis of alternative pathways. They need to know whether or not their ATAR will still be a consideration and how providers make their selection decisions. At present, there is often confusion over whether ATAR ranks are the only basis of admission, whether they are just one factor taken into account, or whether they are irrelevant. There is evidence that some students would have been accepted into the courses they preferred if they had known exactly how a provider’s ATAR bonus point schemes operated or if they had been aware that there were alternative pathways. This is inequitable.
Common language around admissions processes should be adopted by all higher education providers.
For each course, the provider should publish information that clearly identifies the basis for determining admission to the course, including whether admission is on the basis of ATAR or an alternative pathway.
Where admission to a course is determined in whole or part on the basis of an individual’s ATAR, the provider should publish information that identifies clearly the minimum ATAR admission requirements for the course and the provider’s bonus points arrangements. ATAR acceptance outcomes or thresholds should be reported at the completion of all offer rounds.
National consistency and accessibility of information about higher education admissions must be improved. As a way of achieving this, the Panel carefully considered the benefits of developing a single national tertiary admissions centre. The state and territory TACs have a wealth of course information, strong connections with the providers they service, and their processes reflect the diverse state school systems in which they operate.
Significant elements of the TAC role are necessarily tailored to particular jurisdiction or provider requirements. However, much of their work in accepting applications and issuing offers of higher education places is generic and open to streamlining or the application of more common approaches. This would be particularly valuable for students contemplating whether to undertake higher education study outside their state of residence.
The Panel heard evidence on the difficulties faced by students who apply to a higher education provider in another state. It believes further work is necessary to simplify the cross-border application experience for prospective higher education students. While most students choose to study in the state or territory of residence, increasing numbers are looking further afield to pursue their academic ambitions. They need to have their task made easier.
There was limited support for the concept of a national TAC during the consultation process. It is also the case that many non-university higher education providers do not currently utilise TAC services. Consequently, the Panel decided not to recommend establishing a national TAC at this stage. However, the Panel recognises that there would be value in TACs working cooperatively to improve consistency in admission application processes and the information they publish. Consistent use of language and more streamlined access to cross-jurisdictional applications for both students and providers would improve national consistency of admissions processes and enhance the comparability of offerings on a national basis.
More cooperation, consistency and integration between the TACs, particularly on cross border applications, would also better reflect that there is a national higher education policy and funding framework. Certainly, it would improve the student experience for applications across jurisdictional boundaries.
If greater collaboration is unsuccessful in achieving such outcomes, further consideration should be given to establishing a national TAC in the future. Other options worth examining include: • developing a single national application form or online tool for Australian higher education that could capture all of the information that providers might take into account in selecting a student for admission (such as ATAR, workplace experience, vocational education certification, higher education achievements, community engagement, and equity criteria) • enhancing the capacity to redirect cross-border preferences or applications to the relevant TAC without levying an additional application fee • simplifying the process for providers to opt in to accessing cross-border student preferences.
In the absence of a national TAC, there remains a need to centralise information for prospective students. Rather than having to peruse admissions processes on each individual provider’s website, presented in a variety of forms, it would be best to have key comparative information available in a standard format on a single platform. More detailed information could then be accessed for each provider separately.
With this in mind, the Panel strongly recommends establishing a national higher education admissions information platform which should include information on: • each provider’s admissions policies, application pathways and processes • study area requirements, including academic prerequisites, ATAR thresholds, additional requirements and assessment criteria • data on the student cohort admitted in recent years, including the entry pathways taken • links to other relevant information, particularly the Quality Indicators for Learning and Teaching (QILT) performance data, Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA) national register, TAC application portals, and provider admissions policies and processes.
Tertiary admission centres (TACs) should work together to develop consistent language and reporting around admissions processes, and to streamline cross-jurisdictional application processes.
A national higher education admissions information platform should be established to provide a single point of entry for information about higher education admissions policies and processes across all registered providers.
The following three recommendations, which propose standardised institution and study area templates, are intended to improve the comparability of key information available from higher education providers about their admissions processes. It needs to be emphasised that most providers or TACs already publish the key information that the templates would require in some form. Consequently, reporting is unlikely to place a significant additional regulatory burden.
The proposed institution level template would contain providers’ admissions policies and processes, and would be available on the national higher education admissions information platform. The template, which is adapted from the current approach taken by the New South Wales University Admissions Centre (UAC), is set out at Appendix A1. An example, with mocked-up information, is provided at Appendix A2. The Panel believes that the admission information for each institution should encompass:
• the general admissions philosophy which underpins the provider’s overarching educational mission, including institutional guidelines
• admission requirements, incorporating the full range of admission pathways available, how students may access or apply for them and how they will be assessed
• the criteria for any ATAR bonus points and the maximum number of bonus points that can be applied
• the availability of early entry schemes, such as schools recommendation schemes
• the proportion of domestic and international students
• equity scholarships information • special consideration schemes
• information for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians
• information on bridging courses
• courses available by direct application
• enrolment information
• financial assistance information
• accommodation information
• student and campus services information
• appeals and grievances information
• where to get further information at the provider level, including course or study area information.
In preparing this information, the needs of all relevant student cohorts should be considered. Institutions should consider the interests of mature age students, those currently enrolled in vocational education and training and higher education, and professionals in the workforce not currently participating in formal education.
A proposed template for information about the specific admission requirements for a course or area of study within an institution is provided at Appendix B1. A mocked-up example is presented at Appendix B2. In order to enhance comparability the Panel suggests that, for the purposes of a national admissions information platform, this template should adopt the same study area definitions used for the QILT surveys and website, to enable direct comparability of admissions and performance information.
The study area admissions information template should encompass: • an admissions statement relevant to the area of study, including information on work based learning, internships, work placements and graduate career pathways • a profile of admission pathways available for each area of study, including both the proportion of students anticipated to enter via the various routes and the proportion of students who entered via the various pathways in the previous year • a link to the provider’s ATAR and bonus points arrangements, including information for the previous two years at the conclusion of all entry rounds • course costs • where to access further course-specific information.
The Panel considers that this represents the minimum level of comparative information that needs to be provided. Of course, individual providers and TACs are encouraged to supplement this information with additional course specific details, particularly where admission requirements vary significantly within an area of study. Many universities already do so.
For those recent secondary students selected on the basis of their ATAR, the proposed template requires the publication of information about the previous year’s admission outcomes. This should include, for each area of study, at the conclusion of all rounds: • the minimum ATAR required to be admitted (including the impact of any bonus points) • the maximum number of bonus points allowable • the percentage of domestic students admitted with bonus points • the ATAR ranges for each study area in previous years, including the 25th percentile, median, and 75th percentile. The proposed study area template is adapted from models suggested by Universities Australia and the Council of Private Higher Education in their submissions to the Panel’s consultation process.
From a student’s point of view, it is important that standardised information is also easily comparable. The national admissions information platform should enable prospective students to search a number of providers and compare their admissions information. A mocked-up example of information in a comparable format is at Appendix C.
A template should be adopted by higher education providers to publish institution level information in a standardised format about their admissions processes, which would be made available to prospective students on the national higher education admissions information platform.
A template should be adopted for higher education providers to publish study area information in a standardised format about their admissions processes, which would be available to prospective students on the national higher education admissions information platform.
The national higher education admissions information platform should be designed to enable direct comparison of information on admissions requirements and data on previous years’ admission outcomes.
The following two recommendations are intended to ensure that higher education providers can be held answerable for the information they publish about their admissions policies. They are intended to ensure that all providers meet their obligations under the Higher Education Standards Framework.
The key mechanism to ensure providers are held to account for the accuracy of the information they provide should be the national regulator, TEQSA. Following discussions with higher education providers, TEQSA should document and communicate the types of evidence it considers would demonstrate compliance with the admissions transparency requirements of the Higher Education Standards Framework.
TEQSA should work with higher education providers to assist them to meet their reporting requirements. TEQSA already provides a range of Guidance Notes on the Higher Education Standards Framework. A further note outlining best practice in ensuring transparent information on admissions processes (and TEQSA’s monitoring of minimum requirements) should be developed.
TEQSA should have an active role in monitoring compliance with guidance to the sector on transparency in higher education admissions, complementing the regular cycle of assessing applications for provider re-registration.
TEQSA should draft a Guidance Note to providers, canvassing best practice in providing clear information on admissions processes.
The Panel’s recommendations on reporting are intended to be as simple to use as possible. However, users may benefit from assistance on how best to harness the available information for decision-making purposes, particularly in the early years of implementation. The following recommendation is intended to assist students, parents, teachers and career advisors develop the ability to navigate higher education admissions policies and processes.
There should be an online guide to explain higher education admissions information and how to use the national higher education admissions information platform more effectively.
Issues for further consideration
A number of other related concerns were raised during the Panel’s consultations. These matters were seen to impact on the transparency, efficiency and effectiveness of higher education admissions. The Panel considers the following issues need further consideration.
Student success, completion and attrition rates
Admission processes are important. However, it is equally necessary that students accepted into higher education have the capacity and receive the support necessary to ensure that they can benefit from their experience. The Panel is of the view that a further review is needed on the extent to which students drop out of higher education, their propensity to change courses or providers, and the likelihood that they will complete their chosen course.
Higher education providers are required to ensure that only students who have capacity to complete a course are admitted. For providers with higher attrition rates, the question arises as to whether this expectation is being met; and/or whether admitted students are being provided with the necessary support to take advantage of their opportunity.
Recent media reports have claimed certain providers’ attrition rates are symptomatic of poor admissions standards and processes, or that the lower a student’s ATAR, the greater the risk of non-completion. Evidence suggests that the problem is far more complex, with attrition correlated to the interconnected issues of intensity of study and mode of attendance, and the need to undertake paid employment while studying. This important debate needs to be better informed.
The Panel heard evidence that, while some providers with a significant proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds appear to do well at supporting high levels of unit and course completion, there are significant differences in outcomes across the sector as a whole. The specific approaches or interventions which support higher levels of success for such students are not immediately identifiable. The Panel considers that further research is required to build evidence on what factors lead to high success rates and minimise attrition rates among different types of students. In terms of public policy, this is a matter of priority.
Further consideration should be given to assessing the factors and approaches that contribute to student success, completion and attrition rates in higher education.
The need for improved career education in schools and higher education providers The Panel came to recognise that, while higher education admissions processes are becoming more complex, career education support in schools and within higher education providers appears to be decreasing. As a consequence, students (and their parents and teachers) find it harder to make fully informed decisions.
A number of stakeholders noted the importance of career education in supporting students to choose their senior secondary school subjects or higher education courses. Without such support, students – particularly those who are the first in their family to seek entry to higher education – find it more difficult to understand ATAR requirements or access non-ATAR entry pathways. Schools, education systems and higher education providers could all usefully improve the focus on career development approaches. Students need support to help them effectively match their interests, ambition and capabilities to appropriate study and career pathways.
As an immediate first step, consideration should be given to the provision of online training which would help prospective students (and, in particular, their teachers) to understand how to use the comparative information templates that the Panel recommends.The Panel concludes
Admissions information needs to be designed to help prospective students make the best decisions for their future. The Panel considers that national consistency in the presentation and comparability of information about higher education admissions is an essential first step towards providing them with fairer, more inclusive admissions processes. The increasing variety of admission pathways is confusing for schools, parents and students – particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, or whose families have previously had little engagement with higher education. They need to understand clearly what requirements are necessary to gain entry to a higher education course and how to compare alternative providers and choose between different fields of study. They need to exercise informed choice in an increasingly competitive and diverse higher education sector. Greater community understanding of how admissions processes work will also help inform media commentary and public debate on how students gain access to higher education, in a demand-driven system.